Monday, February 24, 2014

A Journey to Germany with Margery Kempe

(Before I begin, please visit last week's post about Margery Kempe here. Also, let me note that most of this post was typed up while I waited for 2.5 hours at the DMV for my new Virginia license, so I apologize if any of my recollections of the text are slightly off.)

In Margery Kempe’s “The Later Years” – also lovingly nicknamed by this graduate student as “M.K. does Deutschland,” but most commonly known as “Book II” – we find our time-tempered and ripened female mystic more sympathetic than the emotionally volatile woman of her youth (even her insufferable wailing is mentioned less frequently). This senior Margery seems more accessible, more human, as we share in her hesitations about her divine protector when she suffers treacherous seas, as we envision a grey-haired woman over 60 having discarded her maiden whites only to find herself too destitute for anything more than a potato sack dress, yet still too ashamed to discard her rugged wardrobe in front of her impoverished traveling companions in order to pick vermin from her flesh. Most of all, we empathize with Margery Kempe as widow and suffering mother who, without confiding in anyone, absconds to Germany with her daughter-in-law, both women having lost their spouses (and for Margery, her son), both women fleeing the site of their most human tragedies, united in grief and the willingness to face the uncertain and unfamiliar after so much death.

As I considered “The Later Years” alongside Carolyn Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality, I discovered within it a real sense of materiality that is not as present in Book I. My discovery was surely in part because, just as Bynum evidences the majority of her investigations into relic cults, Eucharistic miracles, and sacramental worship by describing artistic traditions from the high and late medieval Germanic cultures, Margery Kempe encounters relics and Dauerwunder only here in her senior years in Germany (excepting, of course, that “staf of a Moyses yerde” she misplaces while in Leicestershire in Book I). In Book II, Margery is traveling through a region riddled with sacred objects at a time when theologians were embroiled in the paradoxical arguments defending iconography while simultaneously proclaiming their contemptus mundi. Margery continues to commune with the Godhead even as she frets about her material poverty – she is clothed in little better than rags – and fears rape and attack by highwaymen. Thus the more mature Margery jaunting around Germany reads a bit like a Frau Welt, a woman of the world at once solidly planted on this earth, haunted by the lust and pride of her youth and worrying about the sanctity of her body, while always signaling her desire to transcend the flesh that will rot and decay.

By Frau Welt I refer specifically to the medieval Germanic iconographic statuary (most notably the sculpture at Worms Cathedral) which depicts to the viewer oriented in front of the carving a gorgeous, voluptuous, and perhaps haughty woman, while the viewer who investigates the statue from behind finds a body bored into and eaten away by worms and frogs. Allegorically, the icon signifies the evils of the material world, that no matter how many pleasures the body offers, humanity should not be distracted from spiritual determinations by the lustful desires of a flesh that will inevitably putrefy and decay. Yet the image also celebrates the paradox of simultaneously rejecting and celebrating materiality, finding divinity in the aesthetic and affective power of the mineral world which invites our touch and stimulates the artist’s desire to shape stone into story, as well as signifying with that story the mutability and instability of the body. Only the spirit transcends death; only the material ignites and inspires conscious awareness of the divine. Thus Margery Kempe, like Frau Welt, invites ephemeral communion with the spirit by simultaneously rejecting and relishing in the very realness of her flesh.

I would love to explore the parallels between Margery Kempe and the Frau Welt tradition further (the literal vermin on Margery’s flesh, the paradox of an intransigent stone’s representing the mutability of the flesh, senior-citizen Margery’s continued hypersensitivity to her sexuality), but this is a blog, my blog, and I intend to focus on my personal reflections. Thus, as I journeyed across Germany with Margery and cataloged Christian material culture there with Bynum, I thought deeply about my ever-present anxiety an aspiring medievalist to engage continental literatures without the aid of a translator. I have long assumed I would inevitably undertake the study of French – a language I have never once attempted to learn – since the Francophone route is the way most travelled by scholars of medieval English lit; but as my mouth playfully shaped the rich acoustic syllables of words like “Dauerwunder” and Das Nonnenturnier, I recalled my two semesters of German-language study as an undergraduate so many moons ago and wondered if I could learn to read German instead. The trials of graduate school are already severe enough, so I hoped I could ease my burden by, at the very least, pursuing the study of a language for which I have already built a foundation, even if that foundation is obscured after years of neglect.

Unlike Margery, I discussed my desire to head into Germanic territory with my advisor, who gave me his blessing while smartly advising me of the challenges I will face. The study of medieval Germanic literature is typically left to German language departments or falls under the aegis of Anglo-Saxon/Old English scholarship, but I intend to maintain my focus on English literatures of the high and late medieval periods. Thus, I will forge ahead with fewer travel companions at my side – but if I learned anything from Margery’s early years, it is that the pack will often turn against its very own, so there might be some wisdom in travelling with few companions.

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